You’ve read hundreds of sustainability reports. Are they making more sense now that they used to?
– Absolutely, although there’s a tendency in some companies to think that a big, thick report on glossy paper is automatically more convincing that a smaller, to-the-point one. A big report might be all visions and hot air. Give me the numbers!
What would be BI’s biggest negative impact on society?
– Carbon emissions, due to the amount of airline flights. What can be done about it? We can increase the amount of video conferences, for instance. Build more rooms in which to have them, and have people on hand to help if you run into technical difficulties. However, where BI can have the greatest positive impact on sustainability is through our teaching. BI is the first Norwegian educational institution to sign up for Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), required to, amongst other things, develop the capabilities of students to be future generators of sustainable value for business and society at large, and to work for an inclusive and sustainable global economy.
How important is regulation and Government policy in this picture?
– When politicians increase the cost of plastic shopping bags, it sure has an immediate result. Politicians do tremendous things in the area of sustainability. But the fact is that most people want to do something, as long as it doesn’t affect them right here, right now. And politicians want to get reelected. I tend to think that the four-year re-elected cycle is a bit of a problem when it comes to issues that require long-term thinking and, perhaps, the implementing of unpopular policies.
Politicians would need more time in office to be really effective.
Tell me about the concept of «appreciative inquiry».
– We live in the world where a lot of people – not least the media – have a tendency to concentrate on everything that goes wrong. I think we could learn a great deal by studying things that go right. What actually works. Instead of studying a school that has a problem with bullying, let’s look at a school that doesn’t have that problem, and learn from that school.
What could we as consumers do?
– Buy fewer, better products and used products.
That means companies will sell fewer new products.
– It does. Companies will have to increase prices to make up for decreased turnover. Also, and this is the very core of what I’m interested in, companies can decrease their own expenditure in order to increase profits. Purchasing a super expensive bag that you have been longing for, for a long time, is more sustainable – and will generate more happiness – than buying 20 cheap bags you hardly ever use.
You’ve traveled in third world countries. What have you learned?
– I was in Myanmar recently. Now I’m not saying that Myanmar is the gold standard of a well-run, happy society. Horrible things have happened there, especially in the north. On the other hand: There were no beggars. People seemed pleased with
what they had. I walked the streets in the middle of the night, and didn’t feel scared at all. People were nice. I resent the idea that the way we should help them, is to force our way of living upon them. Increase production, set up H&Ms … I mean, if everyone had the level of consumption we do in the west, we would need four planets to sustain us. We could certainly learn something from them as well. We shouldn’t be imperialistic on behalf of western culture. When it comes to sustainability, western culture hasn’t worked very well at all.
Were you always interested in questions like these?
– I think so. I thought about it when I was appointed as a professor. I started thinking about why I was where I was, you know. Then I came across an old story in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, in which I was interviewed – along with my brother and our neighbour – when I was about 10 years old. We were at a sports event in Holmenkollen in Oslo, and we were cleaning up, collecting empty bottles and getting the deposit money. So even back then I was interested in both the environment and cash!
You took a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in Vancouver?
– Yes, and I realized that I wasn’t very interested in economics. It was a fluke, really. I wanted to go abroad, and I didn’t want to go as an au pair! Later, in Boston, I took a Master’s degree in Energy and Environmental Studies. Now that I found interesting! I took a job at the International Chamber of Commerce in New York, where we worked closely with the UN on achieving the goals from Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Business and sustainability – that was right where I wanted to be.
And then back to Norway?
– Yes, I got a job at Kværner ASA working on new technologies in waste water management, and later in the insurance company Storebrand, where I was responsible for one of the very first reports on Corporate Social Responsibility ever
published in Norway. I was also a board member of WWF-Norway. It was there I met Jørgen Randers, who was a former President at BI. I told him I was interested in getting a doctorate. «Come to BI and I will be your supervisor!», he said.
And now you’ve been here for 12 years.
– There’s just so much happening in this particular area right now. I’m very happy that sustainability has become a part of BI’s strategy. And that BI was the first seat of education in Norway that committed to PRME: Principles for Responsible Management Education.
What do you do in your spare time?
– Having three kids tends to eat up a great deal of your spare time. But I enjoy running, doing yoga, windsurfing,
paddling and skiing. And I bicycle all year round.
In the wintertime too?
– Yeah. I use studded tires!
Reference: BI Advantage 2 2018 The magazine for members of BI Alumni
Text: Morten Ståle Nilsen